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Is Peyton Bender still KU’s starting QB?

Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender (7) throws during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender (7) throws during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Football coaches and coordinators have no incentive to divulge their game plans publicly, and that’s the primary reason Kansas head coach David Beaty elected this week to not announce a starting quarterback for Saturday’s game at Iowa State.

If you listen to offensive coordinator Doug Meacham’s perspective on the matter, though, the decision may have been an easy one.

Speaking with reporters Thursday, Meacham discussed how the staff came to a conclusion early in the week on whether Peyton Bender or Carter Stanley would hold the No. 1 QB spot at ISU (11 a.m. kickoff, FOX Sports Net), instead of letting it play out at practices.

“The team knows the plan. We’ve got a plan. We kind of like to keep it a little bit more internal to have that element of (Iowa State) not knowing,” Meacham began, regarding Beaty’s strategy.

So did either Bender or Stanley show the coaches something early in the week to end the QB debate ahead of schedule?

“It’s just a body of work over the course of time, you know. You still reflect back on that,” the first-year KU coordinator said. “I think Peyton was just going through a little bad spell there (in the loss to Texas Tech). I don’t think he’s necessarily just crummy for life.”

In theory, it’s possible Meacham could be floating the idea of Bender starting — without actually saying the junior transfer is still the starter — as a ploy to throw off the Cyclones (3-2 overall, 1-1 Big 12). But the more he spoke at his weekly media session, the more it seemed he’s not ready to move on from Bender.

A 6-foot-1 junior with past Air Raid experience at both Washington State and Itawamba Community College (Miss.), Bender at numerous times through five games has dumbfounded his coaches with mistakes. For example, Bender misfired on goal-line throws to both tight end Earl Bostick and receiver Jeremiah Booker just before halftime against the Red Raiders. KU’s coaches decided shortly after to play Stanley at QB the rest of the blowout loss.

“When he overthrew a 6-7 tight end (freshman Bostick, listed at 6-6) on the goal line I was a little nervous about throwing verticals,” Meacham said, with a wry chuckle. “Six-seven and he overthrows him. How do you do that?”

An end zone pass to Kansas tight end Earl Bostick Jr. (87) goes wide late during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 at Memorial Stadium.

An end zone pass to Kansas tight end Earl Bostick Jr. (87) goes wide late during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Bender’s two quarters worth of stats read: 12-for-24 passing, 146 yards, one touchdown, one interception, no sacks.

“He just had a bad day,” Meacham said. “You know, it’s like you shoot layups and all the sudden you miss five out of 10. Hard to answer why. You just keep shooting them.”

It was Bender’s fluctuating success that led to Stanley (11-for-19, 110 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, one sack, one lost fumble) finishing the fourth straight loss for Kansas (1-4, 0-2) instead of just entering for certain packages designed around his strengths as a mobile QB.

But the highs and lows of Bender’s play were nothing new.

“He’s just had moments of inconsistency that kind of come out of nowhere,” Meacham said. “We’ve just got to deal with it. There’s a lot of things that factor into it that kind of take the blame and kind of spread it around a little bit.”

While fans might see Bender throw the ball and have it picked off — through four and a half games of action he has completed 56.4 percent of his 202 passes while suffering eight interceptions — Meacham said a missed protection or bad route have led to some of the costly turnovers.

“Or a tipped ball,” Meacham continued. “Tipped ball, and then maybe a tipped ball. I see tipped balls all the time, from the line of scrimmage or wherever. It just seems like all the time somebody grazes the ball — I almost want to tell our guys, ‘If you don’t think you can catch it just put your hands down.’ Because we touch one, they pick it and then they score.”

A not-so-supercut of Bender’s interceptions, Meacham suggested, would leave a viewer scratching one’s head.

“That’s just like, how does that happen consistently?” Meacham said of tipped passes becoming takeaways for KU opponents. “Just freakish stuff.”

Texas Tech linebacker Dakota Allen (40) looks to stiff arm Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender (7) after intercepting a pass from Bender during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 at Memorial Stadium.

Texas Tech linebacker Dakota Allen (40) looks to stiff arm Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender (7) after intercepting a pass from Bender during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

A deflection, of course, had nothing to do with a second-quarter Bender throw over the middle against Texas Tech, which Dakota Allen snagged out of the air, setting up a quick Red Raiders TD drive.

“He under-threw it. Ben (Johnson) was wide open,” Meacham said. “(Bender) just kind of panicked a little bit. If you watch the tape from the end zone the linebacker’s feet were like (more than 3 feet) off the ground, made the greatest interception of his entire life. He’ll never do that again. He jumps up in the air and just … unbelievable.”

While inaccuracy obviously has played a factor in Bender’s struggles, Meacham said he doesn’t necessarily judge the starter of KU’s first five games as an eight-interception QB.

“No, if he had (eight) picks legit and was on the wrong guy, made a horrific throw over a guy’s head and the safety picked it or he under-threw a ball or he threw it right to them (eight) times he wouldn’t be playing at all,” the man in charge of KU’s Air Raid said. “It’s just, he’s had about three of them that weren’t very good, and the rest of them are just … it’s unbelievable some of the stuff.”

Bender hasn’t produced at the level Meacham and the rest of KU’s offensive coaches hoped. That doesn’t mean they’re ready to move on from him and hand the offense over to Stanley.

“I keep thinking about the sweet’s not as sweet without a little sour,” Meacham offered, regarding how he handles the inconsistencies and turnovers. “Can’t always be good.”

— PODCAST: Is There Any Hope Left for KU Football?

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4th-down philosophy: Punting, field goals can be ‘kind of a buzzkill’ to Kansas OC Doug Meacham

Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender (7) throws during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender (7) throws during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Two weeks into the season, the Kansas football team’s offense has not yet achieved the type of results coordinator Doug Mecham’s Air Raid scheme is designed to produce.

But fans combing through the debris of a 45-27 home loss to Central Michigan in search of some signs of encouragement could choose to cling to this: the Jayhawks appear to have a plan for fourth downs.

The days of indecision and calling timeouts to determine whether to punt, kick a field goal or go for it just might be behind KU, now that Meacham is calling the plays.

“We have a lot of data that gives us a read on when to and when not to,” KU’s first-year coordinator and receivers coach explained this past week.

Meacham said as a drive progresses, members of the staff will let him know what a chart of percentages says about a given situation on the field.

“There’s a lot of math involved, a lot of data involved in when and when not to. It’s kind of like when you go to Vegas, you know the blackjack card, when to take a hit. We kind of have that for fourth downs,” he said. “They let me know. And it helps me because on third down I can maybe do something that is a little abstract, because I know I’ve got another one.”

So far this year it has worked to KU’s favor. The Jayhawks are 5-for-6 on fourth downs, an 83.3-percent success rate, which ranks 28th nationally among FBS teams. Only Miami (Ohio), Pittsburgh, UMass, Syracuse, Idaho, East Carolina, Virginia, San Jose State and Hawaii have attempted more fourth-down conversions, with eight being the most.

“We’re just gonna go,” Meacham said. “We have speed-ball plays in line for fourth, we’ve got normals and we’ve got a fourth-down plan. We’ll probably go for it on fourth more than the average team will.”

Against Central Michigan, those words proved factual, as Kansas found prosperity on four of its five fourth-down tries.

Kansas tight end Ben Johnson slips past a CMU defender during the Jayhawks game against Central Michigan Saturday, Sept. 9 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas tight end Ben Johnson slips past a CMU defender during the Jayhawks game against Central Michigan Saturday, Sept. 9 at Memorial Stadium. by Mike Yoder

The first came in the second quarter. On fourth-and-four at the CMU 31-yard line, junior quarterback Peyton Bender found senior tight end Ben Johnson for a seven-yard gain — a play which Meacham didn’t hesitate to signal in.

Later, in the third quarter, with KU trailing 31-20, Meacham called upon freshman running back Dom Williams to convert on fourth-and-one at Central Michigan’s 45, which Williams did, with a four-yard rush.

The other three attempts came in the final quarter. Just one yard across midfield, on fourth-and-10 and trailing 38-20, Bender connected with junior receiver Ryan Schadler on a 15-yard pass.

Next, with the CMU lead up to 45-27, Kansas went for it on its own 42, and Bender threw to redshirt sophomore Chase Harrell for nine yards on fourh-and-six.

KU’s run of fourth-down success didn’t end until the final minutes, in desperation mode from its own 32. On fourth-and-11, Bender’s pass to Schadler only picked up nine yards.

Kansas offensive coordinator and receivers coach Doug Meacham watches over a drill during practice on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 at the grass fields adjacent to Hoglund Ballpark.

Kansas offensive coordinator and receivers coach Doug Meacham watches over a drill during practice on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 at the grass fields adjacent to Hoglund Ballpark. by Nick Krug

According to Meacham, he prefers assertive tactics on fourth downs.

“It’s probably a little bit more aggressive than your norm. Than what the norm is, I guess,” he said. “It’s just like if I coached baseball I’d probably steal a lot more than a lot of these guys do. I mean, make them make a play. You go for it on fourth down. Make them make a play. You punt or try a 48-yard field goal, that’s just kind of a buzzkill to me. Let’s just go.”

KU also converted on fourth down against Southeast Missouri State, in Week 1. At the SEMO 25-yard line, on fourth-and-one, Bender hit Harrell for a nine-yard gain.

Any time head coach David Beaty asks Meacham what the Jayhawks should do, he knows what his response will be.

“I’m going to say ‘go,’ every time,” Meacham said. “You cross that 50, let’s go.”

Beaty pointed to KU’s fourth-down triumphs after the CMU loss as one of the few silver linings.

“I’d just like us to do it on third down so we don’t get to fourth,” the third-year KU head coach added. “But the analytics that we use is something that’s paying off for us.”

— Below is a list of fourth-down positions in which Kansas punted or kicked a field goal during the first two games.

SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE

FIRST QUARTER

  • Own 24, fourth-and-six: punt

SECOND QUARTER

  • Own 49, fourth-and-11: punt

  • SEMO 49, fourth-and-13: punt

THIRD QUARTER

  • Own 5, fourth-and-15: punt

  • Own 37, fourth-and-14: punt

CENTRAL MICHIGAN

1ST QUARTER

  • Own 47, fourth-and-seven: punt

  • CMU 6, fourth-and-goal: Gabriel Rui 23-yard field goal good

2ND QUARTER

  • Own 25, fourth-and-10: punt

  • Own 13, fourth-and-11: punt

  • CMU 16, fourth-and-13: Rui 33-yard field goal good

3RD QUARTER

  • CMU 41, fourth-and-10: punt (down 31-20, late in quarter)

4TH QUARTER

  • CMU 19, fourth-and-10: Rui 37-yard field goal missed wide right
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